Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ellul Critique #3: The Information Age Changes the Impact of Technique

This is a continuation of my series reflecting on Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society. I promised to write up what I felt to be some of the weaknesses of his method; this is the third.

Ellul was writing before the information age: he consistently thinks of the requirements of Technique in a manner analogous to technology and corporations as they existed in the 1950's. That's not exactly his fault, of course: mistakes which to us are obviously or even ludicrously wrongheaded may be quite understandable, though of course, they remain mistakes. His emphasis that Technique requires centralization (pp. 193ff) is one example of this. Nobody who lived through the PC revolution of the 1980's and the resulting death of the mainframe would ever assert with Ellul's certainty that "the idea of effecting decentralization while maintaining technical progress is purely utopian" (p. 194). The way you get computers to do what you want is dramatically different from how you get a drill press or a filling machine to do what you want. You still use Technique, of course, but you use it in very different ways, and it has dramatically different ramifications for those who use it. Many of the conclusions that Ellul draws, not to mention the arguments that he makes or the reasons that he adduces, are simply inapplicable to the economics of information or to the techniques of information management.

To take just one example, one of the great creations of the Information Age has been the job of computer programmer. As I put it in a previous posting:

"I sometimes marvel at how certain gifted engineers are able to work with computers, and the artistry they exhibit as they create beautiful and elegant solutions to the difficult problems I bring them. It makes me wonder if a silent, hidden capacity has existed throughout time inside at least some human beings, an aptitude which lay dormant through millennia of evolution and social change, until the day when Univac was unveiled, and the potential became actuality. To this small class of people, to live in an age prior to computers must have been something like living in a remote tribe which had lost all ability to speak; and turning on their first computer would have had all the glory and the wonder of Adam naming the animals."

If you aren't a computer programmer yourself, it's easy to miss the fact that programmers are first and foremost aesthetes. A great deal has been made about programming as an expression of the will to power, and there's certainly something to that claim. But from my own experience, programming and working with programmers for the better part of two decades, I think the primary motivation is something closer to beauty. Remember that, virtually by definition, a programmer who is writing code is trying to solve a problem that nobody else has ever solved before. If the problem has been solved before, the economics of computing mean that the cheapest, most efficient way to solve it is generally to use that person's code: writing code is hard. So if you're forced to write code to deal with a particular problem, it generally means that nobody has ever solved that problem before. For this reason, the act of programming is akin to meditation, an active response of Thought to the problems presented by an external world. When a programmer has completed (at least for the moment) a module or program, and has done it well, the resulting satisfaction goes beyond any simplistic sense of "a job well done"; it's closer to how an architect would feel contemplating one of his creations, or indeed, the way that an author feels when reading a particularly well-crafted sentence. It is true that Technique these days penetrates into even the heart of beauty and art, but it's equally true that art and beauty have penetrated into the very heart of Technique.

To be clear, I think the Information Age changes Technique both for better and for worse. For all the information Google puts at my finger-tips, it encourages me to think superficially about issues, to treat knowledge lightly, as a commodity, rather than with the respect that it's due. In addition, it introduces an entirely new problem, a vastly expanded "commons" whereby the "tragedy of the commons" can play out, with our attention as the commons, and advertising by fair means or foul as the Technique by which it is exploited.

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